Blackpower.com: My life in Black rock

This week's column on Blackpower.com, in which the author tries to connect (some of) the dots and steps that led to his spending an inordinate amount of time thinking, writing and generally being about Black rock.

“Cleveland, Ohio. Carnegie Mellon University.  No, I'm not a musician.”

This was how I answered a question from a commenter on my blog after she emailed me directly wanting to know more about me, i.e., how is it that you ended up writing about Black rock?  So I answered her questions and also pointed her to several other resources, such as my LinkedIn profile, as well as some key posts, all of which would give her a better sense of  where I'm coming from.

Of course, I realize that all of this still only partially answers the larger question of how I became a Black rock evangelist.

Looking back, I clearly fit the profile of those folks who founded and tended to be attracted to the Black Rock Coalition (BRC) in the late 80s and early 90s.  My friend and NYU professor Maureen Mahon described this typical BRC supporter (musician and non-musician) in her book “Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race.”  Like them, I was a middle-class kid with two parents, who'd had an integrated (in my case, that meant prep school) education. 

I started prep school in seventh grade also started seriously listening to radio.  My initial diet was whatever was on Cleveland’s two Black stations, WDMT and WZAK.  I remember George Duke and Ray Parker Jr. being some of my favorites.  But the largely repetitive playlists and limited subject matter I found on Black radio bored me, so I spent the next year listening to Top 40, where I was introduced to artists like AC/DC, Journey, REO Speedwagon, Styx and was even a fan of the group Quarterflash.

Of course, I had an incentive to like what I was hearing on Top 40 radio.  Fluency with “white” music provided some social currency in my prep school.  Since most of my white schoolmates weren't listening to Black radio, Top 40 provided a point of shared experience.  My ability to talk about pop music was clearly me making the effort to put them at ease. 

It was Roger Troutman's “Heartbreaker” that dragged me back to Black music and Black radio.  I then started a journey up and down the radio dial in search of whatever appealed to me, which ended up being a mix of 80s Top 40, R&B and rap.  Basically, I was taking what I thought to be the best of both worlds.  This exploration would continue into college where I added jazz, world and alternative to the mix.

My formal introduction to Black rock started when I stepped into my first BRC meeting in 1992.  I quickly connected with a manager Janine DaSilva who engaged me to handle PR for guitarist and Defunkt alumnus Kelvyn Bell.  Thus began a more in-depth education in Black musical history.  Through Kelvyn, I learned about his peers–Ronald Shannon Jackson, Sonny Sharrock, Vernon Reid, Melvin Gibbs and a lot of others–who came to rock from the Black avant-garde jazz scene.  This helped me to begin connecting the dots between a lot of music that interested me. 

More importantly, it brought to new aspects of Black music to life for me.  Here were people who weren't “acting white” but rather embraced their blackness fully and proudly.  They understood how they fit into the continuum of Black musical expression.  The talked of carrying on traditions and trying to innovate.  They were about excellence, not just about being dope.  

Am I special?  Hardly.  My background isn't unusual from that of many other middle-class kids.  It's just that at a critical juncture, I was introduced to a vibrant community of artists and supporters who defied popular conventions about what Black music was and could be, a community that not only freely synthesizes a broad range of influences, but also encouraged me not to sublimate my musical interests.

All the while, I couldn't help but wonder why there weren't more Black folks supporting this music.  It seemed so obvious to me, but apparently wasn't.  When I first got involved in the BRC in the early 90s, my attempts to invite people outside the organization to shows were met with, “Oh, I don't really like rock music.”  Actually, it was understandable given that much of what makes it to the mainstream are a bunch of non-singing R&B artists and rappers who only offer street dreams.  As for the former, through my years involved in Black rock, I've seen and heard amazing vocal talent who also sang songs of honesty and substance, and who became my standard for what excellence sounds like.  As for the latter, I grew up a nerd, so none of those street fantasies were anywhere near my experience.  

Black rock not only gave me a deeper connection to Black culture, but it also connected me to to a bigger world of ideas.  Knowing this, I wanted to do my part to see that others—particularly African Americans—could be inspired in the same way.   After all, there's no better time than now to be into, or to be discovering, Black rock.  In this moment of immense possibility, the only thing that will hold us back is our lack of imagination.  And providing food for our imaginations—in the form of sounds, stories, examples—is what Black rock offers in abundance.

That's how I became a Black rock evangelist.

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